India's Uncertain Politics
The Nation
February 22, 1998
On the eve of elections, India faces an uncertain political future. Another hung parliament? A BJP government? A BJP-led coalition? A Congress-led coalition? Despite Sonia Gandhi’s bid to rescue Congress, the public polls estimate some 210 to 230 seats for the BJP and its allies in Lok Sabha, which has a house of 454 members. The Hindutva factor, which means pre-eminence of Hindu culture, may have horrible consequences for a multi-religious, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic and caste-and conflict-ridden country as India is.

In its election manifesto, the BJP has clearly stated to build Ram Mandir in place of the demolished Babri Mosque and withdraw special constitutional status as is believed to have been given to occupied Kashmir. The BJP has declared to introduce the uniform civil code, meaning that the Muslim would not enjoy separate laws for the matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance.

The much-talked about perception about BJP is that in reality it is being ruled by Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the party’s ideological mentor, and its real leader is the party president, Lal Krishna Advani, whose fundamentalist credentials are doubtless. As senior Congress leader Manmohan Singh disclosed earlier this month, “the real BJP is controlled by the RSS, which is the holding company and events suggest that the Prime Ministerial candidate Atal Behari Vajpayee is a mask hiding the rigid and hardcore BJP…BJP is a cadre-based party. Three-forth of the BJP comes from RSS. How can they delink from that.”

BJP’s rule, therefore, is being perceived in India as a potential disaster for India, which, especially form the start of this decade, has seen a rapidly rising political thrust towards regionalism and lower-case assertion. Strangely, voices are already being raised in Indian media for letting the Army play some role in civvilian affairs, a trend only Pakistanis or Bangladeshis are thus far accustomed to. For the purpose, the arguments in Indian media range from establishing the National Security Council to ending the undue civilian interference in the matter of promotion of army officers, from raising their financial earnings to allowing the Army to have a complete say in defense production and weapons expansion.

“We function under a system where the Chiefs of Staff’s most considered views are not at all treated with the deference they merit. And the ‘culprits’ are both the bureaucrats and politicians who control defense policy,” writes a former Rear Admiral Satyindra Singh in The Indian Express, while arguing strongly in favour of further strengthening India’s naval capability which, with two aircraft carriers, is already many times larger then Pakistan’s.

Similar opinions are also rampant in the Indian media regarding the Indian military’s unprecedented ballistic missile quest. Defence Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav has been at the center of criticism regarding politicians’ inability to handle defense affairs.

The Tribune columnist Wilson John has bitterly criticized the I K Gujral government for not reviving the much-brandied about National Security Council, which was conceived and established by V P Singh’s Janata Dal regime in 1990 only to be disbanded after its fall. A similar setup–the Council for Defence and National Security—to institutionalize the Army’s role in politics was created by the last caretaker regime in Pakistan, but it has disappeared form the scene in view of the country’s civilian resurgence.

For forty years after independence, India has been governed by Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which, according to columnist Kuldip Nayyar, “has a long history of dictatorship, deceit and defilement”. No matter how undemocratic was that one-family-governance, India succeeded in surviving as a political entity. However, it was during this long period that the seeds of political instability that now appears to have reached its climax were sown. Thus, the country’s political downturn began as soon as Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. Since then, the successive civilian rules have only added to political instability.

Gone are the days when the Indian army would confine itself to the citadels of power from behind the scenes. The change is recent. Last year, in June, when The Washington Post broke the news about the deployment of Pakistan-specific Prithvi missiles near Julundhar, the clarification about that—saying the missiles were stored not deployed—was not issued by the Gujral government; rather, by the Indian army, breaking the past tradition of politicians coming to the fore to defend matters of defense. One obvious reason for the new development is linked to the problems Indian army is facing from growing insurgencies in occupied Kashmir and the country’s seven northeastern states.

As Ashok Mehta recently wrote in The Indian Express.“Fifty years after independence, and almost as many years fighting insurgency in the northeast and Jammu and Kashmir, the army is beginning to ask why its soldiers are being killed in peacetime. And the answer it is receiving is that politicians are not serious about finding a political solution to insurgency-hit states. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the northeast where several generals of eastern command have publicly complained about the complicity of local politicians with militants. So, commanders are right now yelling their troops to avoid contact and causalities… In the last six months, casualty figures have averaged around a horrendous 50 to 60 killed or wounded a month,” In the political arena, morality is the greatest casualty of India's increasingly Darwinistic power politics. While making alliances with regional parties, the three main contenders in the election—BJP, Congress and the 13-member United Front have shown no concern for political morality. Even though Mulayam’s Smajwadi Party is part of the United Front; in Maharashtra, it is supporting Congress. There are socialists among BJP’s allies in eight states. Several contradictions are also visible in the election strategies of the main contenders.

The main reason why the United Front-led coalition government was dissolved last November was Congress president Sitaram Kesri’s insistence that DMK, one of the United Front parties, should be withdrawn from the government in view of involvement in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. He used the Jain Commission’s report on that assassination as a proof. The Commission’s report has never been an issue during the election campaign.

No more is the Congress a stabilizing factor in this regard. According to latest public polls, the Sonia factor has helped the Congress to increase the number of Lok Sabha seats it is expected to win, up to over 160. Even if the party secures that number, its hope of forming a coalition government with the United Front, which is expected to win over 120 seats, are almost nil, for the simple reason that after being ditched twice, the Front may not like to share governance with Congress.